A loss to the Knicks would have been bad enough for LeBron James, but the way it unfolded Sunday made for a particularly rough day at the office. First, the four-time MVP was castigated by Knicks broadcaster Walt “Clyde” Frazier for sitting apart from his Lakers teammates during a break in the action. Then James’s attempt at a game-winning shot was decisively rejected by New York’s Mario Hezonja.
That would be the same Hezonja who hadn’t even been active for the Knicks in over a month before getting some major minutes Sunday. For his part, Frazier is much better known for gloriously loud outfits than for fiery hot takes, but the former all-star point guard and two-time NBA champion minced few words in letting viewers know he didn’t like what he saw from James.
The episode occurred in the first half of the Knicks’ 124-123 home win, as James sat on the end of the Lakers’ bench, furthest from the scorers’ table and a few empty chairs away from his closest teammate. “When you’re the face of the NBA, I think you should be more a part of your team,” Frazier said on MSG Network.
“No matter what is going on, in the public, you gotta be a part of the team,” the 73-year-old analyst continued. “In the locker room, you’re not. But you have to exude that type of togetherness in public, folks.
"And right now, we see that he doesn’t really care.”
It was not the first time James has taken heat for appearing to distance himself from his teammates in this increasingly lost season. The same sight was widely noted during a lopsided loss Feb. 5 at Indiana and even in a Feb. 27 win over New Orleans, some pointed out a moment when James had his back to his team while it huddled up at the bench.
Such incidents would be mere blips on the radar if James was leading his team to the playoffs. Instead, the Lakers entered Sunday at 31-38, having already more or less waved the white flag by deciding earlier this month to reduce James’s minutes.
That reported agreement with the 34-year-old forward resulted in him sitting out a game at Detroit Friday on the second night of a back-to-back, for “load management.” In theory, he should have been fresh for Sunday’s contest at Madison Square Garden. But while James notched an impressive line of 33 points, six rebounds and eight assists, he missed 15 of 26 shots, including all six three-point attempts and quite the non-make at the end.
The Knicks had a one-point lead with 22 seconds left when James got the ball and waited at midcourt, guarded by Hezonja. Eventually he tried to take the fourth-year forward off the dribble, but the 6-foot-8 Hezonja managed to stay in front of James and snuffed out his shot attempt with surprising ease.
“To beat a great player, sometimes you’ve got to do the unexpected and you’ve got to make big plays,” Knicks Coach David Fizdale said after the game, “because you know that they’re gearing up to make a big play.”
“We didn’t close the game out. Being the competitor that I am, it bothers me that I didn’t make enough plays down the stretch,” said James, who made just four of 15 shots in the fourth quarter and watched as the Knicks erased a late double-digit deficit by closing the game on a 13-1 run.
“It bothers me that I didn’t even get a shot at the hoop,” James added. “Of course that stuff bothers me.”
“He just missed shots, don’t get that twisted,” Hezonja said modestly, also describing as “weird” his abrupt metamorphosis into a defensive stopper. “If you are saying that you are the reason that he is missing shots, you are an idiot.”
Despite the fact that the 14-56 Knicks have the worst record in the NBA, perhaps the final result Sunday wasn’t a total shock given that they entered the game 9-4 against the Lakers since the 2012-13 season, New York’s best mark versus any team in that span. James wasn’t playing for Los Angeles in any of those previous 13 games, though, including a Knicks road win in January when he was out with a groin injury.
James said after the loss that he saw “no difference” between the woeful Knicks and his own squad, calling them “two teams out of the postseason,” and adding, “We could have a couple of more wins than them, but both teams right now are looking on the outside looking in.”
Not surprisingly, the loss — and how it ended — brought forth the online scorn of countless Lakers fans who have yet to embrace the James’s arrival while remaining staunchly loyal to Kobe Bryant. At least James could console himself with a show of support from ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith, who responded to Frazier’s criticism by tweeting, “Folks are going too far.”
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